Conditions bring big fish to scales in Big Crappie Bash

April 30, 2024

By Greg McCain

Late April along the Tennessee River chain usually means post-spawn fish regardless of the species. In particular, crappie have normally come and gone from the shallows, completing their spawning cycle by mid April.

This year has proved to be the outlier, however, with many crappie holding deep and waiting on the exact triggers to push them to spawning areas.

That scenario greeted competitors in the field who fished the 2024 Crappie Cove/ACC Crappie Stix Big Crappie Bash Saturday (April 27) on Watts Bar Lake. Almost all of the fish that claimed the top prizes in the event were pre-spawn, a direct contrast from last year’s event.

Tennessee residents LaRue Isom and Jason Grimes took home the biggest prize, netting $5,000 for the Frogg Toggs Big Fish and another $1,500 for their hourly win. LaRue, of Morristown, and Jason, of Newport, weighed a 2.56 pre-spawn white crappie that easily topped the field of 88 boats, which fished the event out of Terrace View Marina near the mid-lake area of Watts Bar.

The winners had a goal in mind leading up to the event, not just to make a competitive showing but to win the event. They both acknowledged that their performance in the 2023 event was a bit underwhelming. Mission accomplished.

“Winning was definitely the goal this year,” LaRue said. “We put a lot of hard work into it, and it paid off.”

LaRue caught the fish early in the day, and the team brought it to the scales during the third hour. Participants had the option of weighing in fish immediately or holding on to their catches until a later hour. The first weigh-in period started at 8 a.m., and the final-hour weigh-in concluded at 4 p.m.

“It was a great day,” Jason said. “Obviously you see the results. We had a fun day and caught a lot of fish but not a lot of big fish like we had been catching all week.”

The winning team pre-fished Wednesday and Thursday, finding tournament-quality crappie both upriver above Terrace View and downriver toward Watts Bar Dam. They made the call to fish upriver first of all during the tournament, and the strategic move proved to be the correct one.

“We were worried about where to fish because both of us had been catching good fish all week,” LaRue said. “We made a call and obviously it paid off.

“I honestly don’t know the name of the exact location. About a 15-minute run (up the lake) around a marina out on the edge of the river channel.”

LaRue was fishing a Slab Happy SlabTech plastic in polywag color on a 7’ ACC casting rod when the winning fish hit.

“It was an open-water fish, and what kind of hurts is there was another fish right beside it that looked the same size,” he said. “It ran off.”

Starting practice at mid-week, LaRue and Jason were happy to see many fish still in pre-spawn mode despite the advanced time in the traditional spawning cycle. Last year’s winning fish weighed 2.00, and just about all crappie brought to the scales had finished spawning by the time of that tournament.

“They held off (this year) just long enough for the tournament,” LaRue said.

The pre-spawn theme, despite tournament air temperatures in the 70s and water temps in the mid-60s, ran through most of the hourly winners. Mike and Frankie Chesser, the overall winning team last year and winners of two hours in that event, repeated the two hourly wins this year despite what Frankie called “tough fishing.”

The day started off well. Mike actually caught the crappie that won the two hours for the Chessers. He caught one on a SlabHappy SlabTech Minnow in shadfly color. The other came on a Renegade hair jig. The team, from Rogersville, won the second hour with a 1.98 crappie, the only winner under two lbs. Their 2.19 fish won the fourth hour.

Much like the remainder of the field, most of the Chesser’s fish came deep.

“When we got here and started pre-fishing, we were super surprised to see that fish were still pre-spawn,” Mike said. “We looked shallow but just didn’t find what we were looking for up shallow. Most of the fish were out deep waiting to make a move.”

The first-hour winners, Jeff Webber, of Oak Ridge, and Cody Graves, of Spring City, were the only team who reported catching fish relatively shallow.

“We caught our fish in about eight feet of water, pulling them off stumps,” Jeff said. “We caught them on a 6’ ACC rod on a Brush Walker lure made locally here. They were spawning and full of eggs.”

While Jeff and Cody found fish much deeper – out to 38 feet – during practice, they felt the actively spawning crappie were better quality.

“We decided to go shallower because those seemed to be heavier fish,” Cody said.

Other hourly winners were Thad and Brian Jackson (2.16, hour five), Stu Miller (2.28, hour six), Chris Owenby and Brent Bailey (2.19, hour seven), and Matt Xenos and Josh Saunders (2.12, hour eight).

“I honestly didn’t think it was going to happen,” said Matt, the local guide and Wired for Crappie YouTuber who served as emcee for the Friday night meeting and the awards ceremony Saturday. “We caught so many fish between 1.8 and 2 lbs. all day long. I bet we caught 50 fish from 1.8 to 2 lbs. We weighed in four fish over two lbs. and got beat the first three times. The last hour we managed to come out on top.”

Matt, from Maryville, said that he and Josh, from Chattanooga, caught most of their tournament-grade fish 15 to 30 feet deep on stumps.

“It seemed the shorter, stumpier wood held the better fish,” he said.

Stu, the only non-Tennessee resident who crashed the winner’s circle, said he also caught crappie deep on heavy jigs and a swimbait. He comes from Illinois to fish the event each year. This year, the tournament attracted competitors from at least 10 states.

“I mainly sniped fish out in open water,” he said. “On this lake, at least in my mind, when there’s cloud cover, those fish will hold in open water; the fish are high (in the water column). This morning for the tournament, I was sniping fish in open water.

“Once the sun came out today, I transitioned to wood cover. The fish had sunk down into that wood. I caught them on jigs, big jigs actually because the fish were holding deep in 21 to 26 feet of water, so I was casting anywhere from a 1/8 to 3/16 jig and a three-inch swimbait.

“These fish really like that horizontal presentation, so you’ve got one shot. Once those fish react to it, I start reeling as fast as I can. Pull it away from them, and they will chase it. I was watching them (on LiveScope) the whole time.”

Stu said another key for him was the presence of baitfish. He said most of the bigger fish he caught were holding about three feet under balls of shad.

Thad, from nearby Rockwood, caught a post-spawn crappie that won the fifth hour, one of the few fish that had already spawned.

“I caught it in 14 feet of water,” he said. “It was really a toss-up. Some were coming in; some coming out.

“If it had been full of eggs, it would have probably weighed 2.6. It was a good fish.”

Thad, who fished with Brian Jackson, also from Rockwood, said he does not fish other crappie tournaments but loves the Big Crappie Bash.

“It’s an awesome tournament,” he said. “I like the format, and I like the people.”

Chris, from Newport, and Brent, from Maynardville, caught their big fish about 20 feet deep on a swimbait. They reported catching fish at various depths, including some shallower fish two feet deep in the water column.

“The fish are all over the place right now,” Brent said.

“We fished all the way from Tom Fuller Park down to the dam. We scouted it out Thursday and Friday and bounced around hitting brushpiles and stakebeds. We actually caught the fish that we weighed in White’s Creek (just across from Terrace View).”

Tournament activities concluded with an awards ceremony, at which the winners were recognized. All participants also walked away with door prizes provided by sponsors. In addition to Crappie Cove, ACC Crappie Stix, and Frogg Toggs, other sponsors included ThumpGel, Skinny Water Marine Lithium Batteries and Bonehead Tackle. ThumpGel owner Monte Knight, from Guntersville, AL, attended the Big Crappie Bash and provided each participant with a tube of his fish attractant and a lanyard to hold it. He also demonstrated the use and effectiveness of his ThumpNets at the Friday night meeting.

ACC Crappie Stix owner Andy Lehman and Crappie Cove owner Blake Hauk thanked all participants and those behind-the-scenes organizers and helpers who make the tournament a success. Crappie Cove employees Misty Martin and Jamie Parton complete most of the pre-tournament work and also record fish weights during the tournament. Ken and Denise Bulechek, of Clinton, have served as weigh masters for each Big Crappie Bash.

“I’m just blown away by the growth and response to the tournament and the enthusiasm that people have for it,” Andy said. “It’s a great event at a great venue. The tournament has grown at an unbelievable rate with more people from out of state and also with great support locally.

“I would particularly like to thank Misty and Jamie from Crappie Cove for the work they do organizing the tournament. They probably do 80% percent or more of the work. It’s not Blake or myself.

“I also want to thank the sponsors who have come on board. With everyone working together, this has become a great crappie tournament. We couldn’t have grown to the level of a very special one-day event without the help of everyone involved.”

The fifth annual Big Crappie Bash, already scheduled for April 26, 2025, out of Terrace View, promises to be an even bigger event.

“It’s the best,” Matt said. “This tournament is always the most fun one of the year. It’s a blast for myself and just for everyone involved in the tournament. That’s why we hold it every year. I look forward to it next year.

“100 boats. That’s our goal for next year.”

Andy hinted that another tournament might be in the works before the fifth Big Crappie Bash. ACC Crappie Stix staged a traditional tournament on Lake Fork, TX, in the fall of 2020. Is another Lake Fork tournament, this one most likely an hourly event, in the planning stages?

“We’d love to have another Lake Fork tournament,” Andy said. “We’re trying to gauge interest and see what fishermen think about an hourly tournament there.”

Greg McCain is a freelance writer from prime crappie fishing territory in northwest Alabama. In addition to producing content for the ACC Crappie Stix blog, his credits include articles in Georgia Outdoor News, the Alabama B.A.S.S. Nation website, the Cornfield Fishing Gear website, CrappieNOW online magazine, and Great Days Outdoors in addition to many other outlets over the last 20 years.